Exchanging One Cliché for Another

Exchanging One Cliché for Another

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune


PONDICHERRY, INDIA — My first memory of being Indian in America was being called an “injun.” This was around 1980. I was visiting my grandparents in rural Minnesota. The boy who called me an “injun” punched me in the stomach; later, his friends would call me a “communist.”

Those were particularly crude reactions but they were characteristic of the distance that separated India and America for much of my life. I grew up between both countries, the son of an Indian father and an American mother, but my two homes always felt very far apart. For much of my childhood and early adulthood, India and America were literally — but also culturally, socially, politically and experientially — on opposite sides of the planet.

When I moved to America in the early 1990s, India was little more than a cipher in the American imagination. Many of my new friends were uninterested in and uninformed about the country that I desperately missed. India was defined by the broadest, and usually most unflattering, of brush strokes — stereotypes about poverty and corruption, images of crowds, maybe a vague sense of what Indians in America used to call the “three C’s”: caste, cows and curry.

I’ve been thinking about those early years in America, because I just spent a few weeks back in the country, in New York. Every time I return these days, I’m struck by the extent to which the gulf of incomprehension has narrowed. The indifference I used to encounter has given way to a new curiosity, and an awareness of shared economic and political destinies. Cold War antagonisms have been replaced by common geopolitical interests — a sense, as President Bill Clinton put it on his visit to India in 2000, that the two countries are “natural allies.”

Most of all, I’m struck by the new optimism and enthusiasm that seem to have attached themselves to India, and especially to its economic prospects. More than a century ago, Mark Twain called India “an incredible aggregate of poverty.” Today the media extol it as a “roaring capitalist success story” and “the next economic superpower.

Across America, I meet taxi drivers, shopkeepers and businessmen who speak admiringly about the opportunities and promise of a new India. The “three C’s” have been replaced by an altogether more modern — and certainly more prosperous — set of associations: technology, outsourcing, billionaires, Bollywood.

In Harlem recently, I met a newspaper vendor who operated a kiosk down the road from where I was staying. He asked where I was from. “India?” he said. “You must be really smart, or rich — or both.”

I thought about his reaction for a while, and then I returned to ask him what he really knew about India. “Not much,” he confessed. “I don’t really follow the international news.”

He told me about the young Indian sisters — quadruplets — who lived next door to his house. He said they were beautiful; they had an “American swagger.” He noticed they did not wear the “red dot” on their foreheads. He figured it was a sign that India was changing.

He told me, too, about working as a shuttle-bus driver at the U.S. Open over the summer. Many of his passengers were Indians. He was astonished by how many had expensive box seats.

He talked about the Indians he often found at the other end of the line when he telephoned customer service. He knew that “Wall Street” was scared of those Indians; they were taking American jobs.

These types of experiences — fleeting, individualized — had added up to a general image of India in his mind. It was an image of a thriving, modernizing nation that was strikingly at odds with the one I had encountered when I first moved to America.

Indians, the newspaper vendor told me, citing the example of another vendor, a man named Muhammad who worked 14-hour days, had a knack for success. They worked hard, they knew how to chase down opportunities. “I’m one who’s probably guilty of not pursuing all my opportunities,” he said, shaking his head ruefully. “But Indians aren’t likely to make that same mistake.”

It’s hard to deny the feeling of gratification that such pronouncements give me. India is a country on the move now, a nation that is increasingly — and correctly — being recognized for its economic prowess and achievements.

When I visit cities like Bangalore or Mumbai, I see swarms of young American interns and workers, all in the country to chase professional opportunities, escaping the economic stagnation at home. Their sight inspires a certain thrill, and perhaps a little schadenfreude: Who would have ever imagined that India would be creating opportunities for economic refugees from the land of opportunity?

Yet when I talk to men like that newspaper vendor, I can’t help but wonder a little, too, about India’s new global image.

For all its achievements, it’s hard to accept India as an example of a roaring capitalist success story. I know there’s a lot more to the country than smart and rich technology workers who are stealing American jobs and buying box seats at the U.S. Open.

Sometimes I feel that one set of stereotypes has just replaced another — that the old, negative simplifications have been replaced by new, positive ones.

Back in India now after my time in New York, I’m grateful for all that this country has achieved over the last couple of decades — all the external signs of success (the gleaming technology parks, the new roads, the shopping malls) and all the other, less tangible transformations that I know are expanding horizons and opportunities for hundreds of millions of people.

But I am reminded, too, of all that remains to be done: the poverty that exists despite the new economic success, the islands of deprivation that have in many respects only grown more resilient since the start of India’s boom.

Mostly, I’m reminded of just what an intricate, layered country this is, and of how complex is the process of change and development it is undergoing. I’m happy that stereotypes of India have turned positive. But I’d be a lot happier if the stereotypes could give way to an acknowledgement of that complexity.

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